A New Book Profiles Female Scientists Who Changed the World

How many female scientists can you name? In a survey a few years ago, 65 percent of Americans couldn’t name a single female scientist. Ouch.

A new book will hopefully help fix that problem. Journalist Rachel Swaby’s Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—And the World comes out today from Broadway Books. The book collects 52 brief biographies of women in all fields of science, from well-known women like Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin to many, many people I’d never heard of before. Swaby was inspired to write the book, she said, after reading the poorly written 2013 obituary for Yvonne Brill, whose revolutionary contributions to rocket science were buried beneath an opening paragraph about her beef Stroganoff. 

We got permission to share three biographies from the book. Read them below! 

hertha ayerton

HERTHA AYRTON

1854–1923

PHYSICS • BRITISH

WHEN EARLY THEATERGOERS NICKNAMED CINEMA “the flicks,” the name was an affectionate reference to a technologi­cal quirk. The powerful light beam directed through film strips fluttered, sending black-and-white moving images to the screen in bursts and dips. That flicker came from early projectors’ arc lighting, which was created when two carbon rods placed next to each other were electrified. The electricity jumped the gap between the two rods, causing a brilliant, if unsteady, arc. Over time, arc lighting’s flicker was verbally shortened to flick, and the name stuck, despite modern cinema’s steady projections.

Arc lighting dates back to 1807, but it wasn’t until generators caught up with the technology’s needs in the 1870s that indus­try could finally use it. Too bright for homes, arc lights became the go-to solution for lighthouses and other applications where very strong beams were needed. By the 1890s, they started to replace gas in streetlights, and then they became famous for their place in films, both illuminating the sets of movies like Citizen Kane and beaming early silent film stars to the screen.

Arc lighting’s place should have been in the background, but because the lights hissed and sputtered, they claimed a promi­nent part in every production. The ruckus occurred in the rods. When they were electrified, the carbon evaporated and a tiny hole would form. As air rushed into the divot, it created a whine. Constantly tweaking and adjusting the rods in an effort to coax them into doing their job without too much protesting, arc light attendants were always busy.

Scientists like Hertha Ayrton, a British inventor and physi­cist, and her husband, William, an electrical engineer, started working toward a quieter and more consistent arc light in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, their work went up in flames when it was mistaken for kindling, crumpled by the maid and tossed in the fireplace. (No word on whether the fire burned brighter.) The mistake occurred while her husband was away in the United States on business, so Ayrton restarted the research by herself.

She began by mounting a thorough investigation. By un­derstanding the process’s intricacies, she hoped to identify the problem and figure out how to engineer it to cut the hiss and the flicker.

When she discovered that the rod was the problem, Ayrton simply designed a rod shaped for quieter use. Along the way, Ayrton also got clarity on the light’s flutter, by learning about the relationship between the voltage drop across the arc, the arc’s length, and the current. She published twelve papers in The Electrician in 1895 and 1896 that laid out her findings.

Ayrton demonstrated her work on arcs for the Royal Soci­ety in 1899. A newspaper gushed that the “lady visitors” were “astonished… ne of their own sex in charge of the most dangerous-looking of all the exhibits—a fierce arc light en­closed in glass. Mrs. Ayrton was not a bit afraid of it.”

Members of the Royal Society, however, were a bit afraid of her. When Ayrton’s paper “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc” was accepted in 1901, the society recruited a male mem­ber to publicly present it, as women weren’t allowed. A year later, she earned a nomination to join the society, but the group consulted a lawyer who decided that her sex made her ineligible; according to English common law, a married woman had no legal standing separate from her husband.

Ayrton thought that the discrimination she faced was utter nonsense. “Personally I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all,” she explained to a journalist. “The idea of ‘women and science’ is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given op­portunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex, point of view.”

Ayrton was one of the good scientists. Her 450-page book, The Electric Arc, became the standard on arc lighting nearly as soon as it was published in 1902. But it wasn’t until two years later that the Royal Society allowed Ayrton to read a paper of her own. Eventually, the organization came around. In 1906, Ayrton was awarded the society’s Hughes Medal “for an origi­nal discovery in the physical sciences, particularly as applied to the generation, storage and use of energy.” Membership, how­ever, was still out of her reach.

Until 1918, women’s right to vote was, too. Informed by her own early poverty and continuing experience with sexism, Ayrton was an outspoken suffragist operating with authority, charm, and presence. She cared for suffragist hunger strikers and refused to participate in the 1911 census. Scrolled across the official census form she wrote, “How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to choose between two candidates for parliament? I will not supply these particulars until I have my rights as a citizen. Votes for women. Hertha Ayrton.”

Ayrton was one of a small club of women attempting to gain acceptance in the overwhelmingly male scientific institutions. Ayrton counted Marie Curie among her closest friends, and often stuck up for the chemist’s reputation publicly. “An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat,” wrote Ayrton in response to a com­mon Curie refrain. When Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in 1906 and Ayrton’s husband, William, died in 1908, both went on to prove that, though their husbands were valued collaborators, they possessed scientific prowess of their own.

Science was actually Ayrton’s second career. Before her exploration into arc lighting, she was an inventor, patenting a device that would divide a line into equal segments. (Some biog­raphers ascribe her affinity for tinkering to her watchmaker fa­ther.) In World War I, dismayed by reports of chlorine gas being used on British soldiers, she was drawn to invention again. The self-assigned task was this: How could she guard soldiers from the noxious gas? To experiment with a variety of methods, Ayr­ton staged a miniature war zone in her drawing room, with matchboxes serving as trenches and cooled smoke (produced from brown paper lit on fire) standing in as gas, which she poured over the circuit. There she refined what she believed to be the best solution—essentially a long broomstick topped by a large rectangular paddle, which when flapped manually would force the gas away.

The military was initially skeptical. What could these fans possibly do in battle? The organization’s hang-ups were partly semantic. “Fans” were objects that women carried. It took a couple of years and a demonstration in the field in 1917, but the military finally put the devices to use; some one hundred thou­sand were eventually shipped to the Western Front. Two years later, Ayrton completed an automatic version to contend with more powerful winds.

Ayrton was a creative problem solver. She had the flexibility and skill set to tackle a hiss, a flicker, or a deadly gas, whether it required a set of pillboxes or the principles of physics. It never mattered if others believed those things weren’t within her reach. She knew they were.

hedy lamarr

HEDY LAMARR

1914–2000

TECHNOLOGY • AUSTRIAN

HEDY LAMARR KNEW WHAT WAS EXPECTED OF HER, AND be­coming the inventor of a secret communication system—that would usher in technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS—was not among them. But no one really pegged her for a Hol­lywood film star, either. Lamarr was, after all, born in 1914 and raised half a world away, in Vienna, Austria. Even the preco­cious daughter of a banker with training in dancing and piano wouldn’t have a hope of landing so much success so far away. But Lamarr was never concerned about what other people be­lieved was within her grasp or out of it. She had her own restless­ness to contend with. “I’ve never been satisfied,” said Lamarr. “I’ve no sooner done one thing than I am seething inside to do another thing.” Even amid divorce, war, and rejection, Lamarr could spot an opening that would bring her closer to advance­ment, no matter how obscured.

When Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was a child, she would wander the streets of Vienna with her father, listening to him explain the inner workings of complicated machines like street­cars and printing presses. He put a high value on independence: “[My father] made me understand that I must make my own decisions, mold my own character, think my own thoughts.” Not only did he provide her with the marching orders to find her own way in the world; he also gave her the ammunition with which to carry it out. When Lamarr made the decision to leave school at sixteen and move to Berlin in order to pursue acting, she knew her father would not stop her.

Lamarr quickly made a name for herself on the stage and screen. But her ascent was not without snags. An early one was her marriage to a wealthy (and persistent) munitions dealer, Friedrich “Fritz” Mandl, who promptly forced her to quit her public-facing career as an actress for a new role at home: the trophy wife. Becoming an accessory brought in to thrill her hus­band’s powerful friends, however, did not suit her. “Any girl can be glamorous,” Lamarr said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Before long, Lamarr began plotting her escape. While she performed her act as a well-coiffed houseplant, she paid careful attention to the sensitive conversations her husband was having with his guests, who included diplomats, politicians, generals, and Benito Mussolini. Lamarr planned to leverage what intelli­gence she’d gathered against her controlling husband, should he refuse to allow her to quit the marriage. It never came to that. By 1937, after Mandl stormed off to one of his hunting lodges following a fight, Lamarr left for London with two large trunks, two small ones, three suitcases, and as much jewelry as she could carry. (Money was difficult to take out of the country.) Upon arriving she was able to arrange an introduction with the head of MGM Studios, Louis B. Mayer, the executive with the largest salary in the United States. They met at a small party. Unlit cigar in hand, he chided her for a nude appearance she’d made in an art film, telling her, “I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around a screen.” There it was again: what people think. She knew what Mayer thought. He offered her a $125-a-week contract with MGM if she could find her own way to California. Lamarr turned him down. Sala­cious scene or not, Lamarr knew her value by the way Mayer inspected her—and it was more than he was offering.

But Lamarr also understood that Mayer was her best ticket to Hollywood, so when the MGM head and his wife hopped on a 1,028-foot ocean liner to the United States, Lamarr made sure she secured herself a spot on the ship, too. By the time the boat arrived stateside, Mayer had upped his offer: five hundred dollars a week for seven years if she agreed to English lessons and a name change. Her new moniker, decided over a Ping-Pong table while they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, was marquee-ready. At age twenty-two, Hedwig Kiesler walked off the ship newly anointed as Hedy Lamarr. She was cast in her first film seven months later.

 As her career ramped up, Lamarr realized she wasn’t espe­cially fond of Hollywood in the off hours—too many social oc­casions with “people who kid all the time,” she said. Lamarr preferred time to herself to tinker. Restless and still engaged in how the world worked, Lamarr transformed her drawing room into a workshop where she could fiddle with the many ideas that preoccupied her. There, she reimagined everything from tissue disposal to soda. For the latter, Lamarr convinced the high-flying manufacturing magnate Howard Hughes to loan her two chemists to help with experiments that would transform a bouillon cube into a savory cola. In Forbes magazine years later, Lamarr laughed about the effort: “It was a flop.”

By 1940, the headlines about World War II became more serious. Just one month apart, two British ocean liners carrying children to safer waters were torpedoed by German U-boats. In the second incident, seventy-seven children were killed by peo­ple who spoke Lamarr’s mother tongue. She was both shaken and incensed. She deeply wanted to find a way to help the Al­lied forces. Perhaps, she thought, all that information she’d gathered on German military tech might be of use in defending against the Germans.

Lamarr was so serious about getting the information to offi­cials in her adopted country that for a time, she considered quit­ting acting in order to lend her knowledge of Mandl’s dealings to the National Inventors Council, a group established during World War II as a sort of clearinghouse for ideas that might help the war effort submitted by the public. Instead, she decided to design something practical, a technology that the military desperately needed: a better way to guide torpedoes.

By 1942, US torpedoes had a whopping 60 percent fail rate. The weapons, which were improperly tested before deployment, were tossed out like bowling balls with spin but no aim. They would often dive too deep, burst too early, or do nothing at all. On other occasions, the torpedoes hit enemy ships, but without enough oomph to sink them. The weapons needed a better in-action guide to keep them on course. Lamarr started thinking about communication. If the soldiers ordering the torpedoes could keep tabs on them en route, the effect would be like in­stalling bumper lanes in the vast, uncertain sea. Should the mis­sile start to veer off, a human could guide it back from afar.

Engineers had been thinking about the communication problem for decades, but they hadn’t yet uncovered a solution that was enemy-proof. Although radio could offer a connection between sub and torpedo, the technology had an oversharing problem. Once a station was established, enemies could easily gum it up, jam it, or listen to the signal. The line was too public. What soldiers needed was a way to talk to their weapons without the enemy overhearing the instructions. An anti-jamming tech­nique had been floated in 1898 by a US Navy engineer, but his solution—transmitting over higher and higher frequencies—wouldn’t have lasted long as opposing forces one-upped each other for higher and higher real estate. Lamarr, however, had another idea of how to secure a safe and clear connection. Since setting a single frequency left the communication vulnerable, she thought that a coordinated effort where both the sender and the receiver hopped frequencies in a pattern would confound anyone trying to listen in. The idea was similar to two pianos playing in unison.

Helping her to advance the idea was Lamarr’s friend George Antheil, a composer who put together movie scores to help sup­port his more experimental work. Antheil was famous for a piece he produced in Paris in 1926 called Le Ballet Mécanique. Although humans ended up playing the parts, the work called for automated player pianos to perform in sync. Lamarr, also an accomplished pianist, sometimes played recreationally with Antheil. The duo would play a game sort of like chase across the keys. One person would start playing a tune, and the other would have to catch the song and play alongside. According to her son, this synchronized musical discourse gave the inventor her idea for outsmarting the Axis opponents. Antheil, who had already put quite a lot of thought into how to synchronize ma­chines and who had, at one point, been a US munitions inspec­tor, was the perfect partner to help Lamarr implement her idea.

Over countless hours on the phone, in the evenings, and spread out with matchsticks and other knickknacks on La­marr’s living room rug, the pair nailed down the basics for their frequency-hopping invention. They applied for a patent in June 1941.

More concerned about the war than monetization, Lamarr and Antheil also sent their ambitious plans to Washington, D.C., for review from the National Inventors Council. The posi­tive feedback was swift. In a special to the New York Times, the council leaked its approval. The article began, “Hedy Lamarr, screen actress, was revealed today in a new role, that of an in­ventor. So vital is her discovery to national defense that govern­ment officials will not allow publication of its details.” The idea was classified “red hot” by the council’s engineer.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed the perception of the project. With the tragedy came many revelations about the sorry state of the United States’ existing torpedoes. At this point, the navy decided that they neither had the bandwidth nor the interest to test another system. Lamarr and Antheil secured the patent but lost out on a government contract. Lamarr’s patent was classified and filed away, its inventors’ chances for real-world deployment left in the dusty back pockets of a gov­ernment cabinet.

It wasn’t until two decades later that the idea resurfaced, wrapped into new frequency-hopping communication technol­ogy (later called spread-spectrum). Even then, the idea didn’t go public until 1976—thirty-five years after it was patented.

As it turns out, the technology had broader uses than just missiles. Lamarr’s idea paved the way for a myriad of technolo­gies, including wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems, to name a few. While she had a long ca­reer as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the full recogni­tion she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997. Her response: “It’s about time.”

ruth benerito

RUTH BENERITO

1916–2013

CHEMISTRY • AMERICAN

THE COTTON INDUSTRY WAS IN A TAILSPIN. IN 1960, it produced a cushy 66 percent of the clothes in American homes. By 1971, cotton’s market share was nearly cut in half. Nylon, polyester, and other lab-made synthetics developed in the 1930s and 1940s had charmed their way onto hangers. Sure, synthet­ics had drawbacks. They held on to body odor and could get itchy. But they also performed this one really outstanding trick synthetics didn’t require an iron.

Cotton’s wrinkling problem was a product of the material’s weak hydrogen bonds. At the molecular level, the fabric is made up of strong chains of cellulose drawn together by hydrogen. Washing the cotton caused the cellulose chains to flap around. Meanwhile, the hydrogen atoms sat idly by, doing nothing to re­store the order. Cotton clothing became notoriously wrinkled, even after being pulled from the line or from the dryer. The most obvious thing that would smooth the cellulose was an iron.

Morning after morning, Americans held up two shirts: one that required setting up a cloth-covered table, a hot metal ob­ject, and some spare time, and another that could be yanked from a clean laundry pile and buttoned up immediately. Syn­thetics were unstoppable.

Or at least it looked that way until 1969, when Ruth Bene­rito saved the cotton industry from collapsing. Her discovery of wrinkle-free cotton brought the material back from the brink.

It’s important to note that Benerito had a habit of downplay­ing her abilities. On going into chemistry: “I’m not good with my hands. My mother said she didn’t know why I went into chemistry ’cause I was so terrible with my hands.” On discover­ing wrinkle-free cotton: “Any number of people worked on it.”

Graceful motor skills or not, Benerito jumped into the wom­en’s college at Tulane University when she was fifteen. By the time she was nineteen in 1935, she’d earned her bachelor’s in chemistry. The year was a lousy one for an aspiring chemist looking for employment. The Great Depression made it impos­sible for her to land a job in her field, so she took a position teaching high school and waited it out. The window of opportu­nity finally opened during World War II when spots vacated by men in industry and in universities were opened up to women. Benerito taught at Tulane, finally getting her PhD after the war.

Looking back on her life and education, Benerito realized she had benefited from two separate incredible moments in scientific research. The first occurred while she was attending PhD classes at the University of Chicago in the summer. “It was a good education because I was taught… by the greatest chemists of the last century,” she mentioned nonchalantly. She was there when the university served as a Manhattan Project hub. Several of her professors were Nobel Prize winners, and some classes were so small that Benerito would be in the com­pany of just another student or two. “I think that’s what gave me such a good background in chemistry,” she said. The Cold War—“when [the government] put a lot of money into science because we were competing with Sputnik.”—was also favor­able for Benerito and her colleagues.

Between the two periods, she returned to Tulane to teach in the engineering school. She enjoyed watching students suc­ceed, but eventually the promotions given to her less experi­enced male colleagues grated on her. When a new dean came in, she asked for a raise. He replied that he’d need some time to personally evaluate her performance. It was a blatantly obvious brush-off, if she’d ever seen one. “I said I’ve been here thirteen years. If you don’t know me now, you’ll never know me,” she said. “So I quit.”

Some former students who’d gotten jobs at the US Depart­ment of Agriculture saw Benerito’s resignation as their opening to rope a major talent. She was hired in 1953 for what would be­come a very productive, thirty-three-year career. The purpose of the USDA’s New Orleans outpost was to push America’s farm products into the future with data, science, and engineer­ing. Benerito came to the post full of ideas and initiative.

This time, her abilities didn’t go unnoticed. Within five years, Benerito was named leader of the lab that would make fabric history. Remember those breakable bonds between long cellulose chains? To sturdy those connections, Benerito experi­mented with shorter bonds that would “cross-link” the longer fibers, acting like a series of rungs on a ladder. When washed and dried these cross links would hold the long cellulose chains in place, convincing them to lie flat for wrinkle-free fibers.

She wasn’t the first one to try cross-linking. Previous at­tempts caused the cotton fibers to become so rigid that just the act of sitting down could produce a Hulk-like effect, splitting the shirt all the way up the back.

Benerito’s big innovation was in the additive. Instead of going with one that chemically attached to the cellulose chains, she found one that smoothed the surface. Her innovation not only kicked off the “wash and wear” cotton industry but also provided the foundation for stain-resistant and flame-retardant fabrics. Benerito was honored with the Lemelson-MIT Life­time Achievement Award and the USDA’s highest honor for service—twice!

Though she would feel uncomfortable claiming the title, the Queen of Cotton had been crowned.

Reprinted from Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the WorldCopyright © 2015 by Rachel Swaby. To be published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 7.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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